Thanks, God, I will say in homage to Wasim bhai if someone can invent a device which can stop me hurling the kitchen sink at my television. No, not a clichémeter to go with snickometer, wherein commentators receive a low-voltage shock every time they intone “run in hard”, but something far simpler. In this age of Hot Spot, super slo-mo, ball trackers, why isn’t there a button on my remote which allows me to watch television with the sound on but the commentary off?
I want the percussion of wood on leather, the concert of the crowd, the chorus of the appeal to umpire. But the punditry on ESPN—while superior to the shameless peddling during the Indian Premier League or the churning chattering on other channels—can be unenlightening and exhausting, to the point where a friend mutes his TV and puts on the radio. Having once spent half a day in Adelaide behind Tim Lane, Peter Roebuck, Harsha Bhogle and Kerry O’Keeffe I know why, for radio can be convivial, imaginative, amusing.
Men of their words: Today’s voluble commentary would have given the superb tennis commentator Dan Maskell a heart attack.(Evening Standard/Getty Images)
At dinner in India last fortnight, with writers Pradeep Magazine, Sharda Ugra and Rahul Bhattacharya, radio kept coming up, especially a phrase attributed to the lunatic O’Keeffe, who is rumoured to have once said that Virender Sehwag thinks that “leaves are only for autumn”. What he definitely did say recently, and hilariously, on watching Ishant Sharma run in, was, “If he appeared in a police line-up, you’d say Colombian drug runner.” A single line can make a session. Just a few pithy words can make a morning. When Mark Greatbatch, criticized by the media for dismal catching years ago, took a blinder at slip in Australia and wagged his finger furiously at the commentary box as if to say “take that, you bastards”, Richie Benaud simply remarked, all fine timing and brevity: “He’s probably reminding them that he missed a couple earlier in the series.”
Bhattacharya once wrote beautifully that “there is something ethereal about cricket at dawn”, speaking of awakening years ago to cricket in Australia, of white-painted faces trying to destroy chewing gum—but he was also referring to the television experience. Then it was Channel 9, which set the standard for years but has turned somewhat parochial, and to its discredit—not to mention other Western broadcasters— still hasn’t always managed to correctly pronounce Indian names, when all it takes is a producer’s trip to the dressing room for a phonetic list.
Mate, it’s Say-Waag, not Sea-Wag.
It’s Ush-Win, not Ash-Win.
It’s Za-Heer, not Zaaah-Heer.
Even Indians can tell it’s Swonn (as in “on”) not Swann (as in “ran”). Really, it’s not that hard.
If radio commentators paint wider, colourful pictures of what we can’t see, television commentators must offer analysis of the picture we do see. It is not easy. Three commentators are hurled together often, all scrambling to insert an opinion. Advertisements leak into the broadcast and this constant commercial intrusion restricts the storyteller’s time, a bit like telling Neville Cardus: “Sir, you have 300 words, no more.” Furthermore, host broadcasters can ask producers for specific shots, demanding that those taking the feed be nimble-worded (to use a Bhogle phrase) when the pictures abruptly change. It is why commentary is considered to be an art form, yet even as picture coverage of all sport has improved, commentary in most places has not kept pace. The sheer clutter of words has reduced the quality of the experience.
Still new to the art: Sourav Ganguly has a natural flair but tends to over-speak.(Live Images)
Pictures tell their own tense tales— the taut faces and fidgeting bodies before a Wimbledon final—and then a microphone will poke a player in the face to ask a question to which the only answer can be banal. There is too much talking, in all sport, as if in a twittering generation (once I get on Twitter I’m going to regret this line) something has to be said, but no sport is so profound. Not even cricket. No act is to be considered now, no pattern must unfold, the words must simply come. In tennis, Luke Jensen, at last year’s US Open, was speaking—gasp, gulp—over second serves. Dan Maskell, whose stuffily superb comment on a girlish mob chasing Björn Borg across Centre Court was, “This is sacrilege. She is wearing high heels”, would have had a coronary. Even in golf, which can go gooey about tradition—while conveniently skipping past the sexism of men’s golf—words will follow a putt when all we want to do is watch its trajectory.
To talk endlessly is to turn commentary from deft dissection and elegant explanation to recitation and, alas, repetition. Recitation is allowed in football, whose script unfolds rapidly, but not in cricket. Repetition, which comes from over-speaking, has its own solution, except producers don’t appear to recommend it: Be Quiet. I can see the ball cut to square, I can see them running two, I can see the fielder diving. I have a picture before me requiring no words. It is a single shot, it is not fatal field-setting nor a national disaster, it is to be enjoyed, not intruded on. Perhaps we should xerox and distribute the 10 Commandments which David Hill of Channel 9 wrote years ago, and which was worthy of listing in Benaud’s book, Benaud on Reflection. Hill’s third instruction read: “Remember, silence is the greatest weapon you have in your armoury”.
The pitch-perfect Richie Benaud knows the importance of reflection.(Tom Shaw/Getty Images)
But young producers are possibly in awe of the men with mikes. Reputation perhaps has impeded professionalism. Sourav Ganguly, the most appealing of Indian voices, for instance, is sharply honest, uses well the advantage of having breakfasted for years with V.V.S. Laxman and shared a bus with Rahul Dravid, and is rumoured to be a cricketing fanatic who follows the game in all its geographies. But, young to his craft, he can occasionally over-speak, as if trying to score a century before lunch, and it requires only a gentle word: Pace yourself, dada, an entire career of conversation awaits you.
Ganguly has a natural flair for commentary, a certainty of opinion, which is a bonus, for cricket by and large has a predilection for the famous name irrespective of talking talent. Tennis’ sublime Mary Carillo, for instance, would not cut it here. Who is she, we might ask? But cricket, which undoubtedly lives on the expert, pursues the great name ardently, uncaring if great batsman doesn’t morph naturally into great coach or great commentator. Come, speak, they say, and you can almost feel the hubris which follows some commentators into the box: I KNOW THIS GAME. But its translation into words is the art he must pursue, the idea that his knowledge is useless without communication. It makes you wonder, Do they—some, not all—learn the medium as dutifully as they once did their sport?
The only part of Navjot Sidhu—who will rightly tell you how dreadfully inept I was in my only attempt at cricket TV presenting—which was faintly agreeable was his homework. He thought about his words, so what if they became an unpunctuated, unlinked collection of absurdities. But research seems to be rare. A European golf commentator recently told me he had quiet dinners with players during events, picked up on family distractions, on new coaches, on stroke struggles, but cricket talkers rarely offer the impression of off-mike reporting. Only the greying yet un-ageing Chappelli, of those I heard in Australia this time, tells sufficient and engaging stories, for he has not just a voice but a ear to cricket in his nation.
What do I want? Well, Ian Chappell, Ganguly, Sanjay Manjrekar, Nasser Hussain, David Lloyd. What I want is the occasionally lyrical line. I want a streak of amusement now and then, for this is sport, not real life, it need not be invaded by grimness always. I want repartee and there is none in cricket. I want nationalism banished, for the commentator—whether Australian or Indian—is observer and analyst, not panderer and flag-hoister.
I want to feel what it’s like to face a glowering Peter Siddle, to comprehend nuance, to hear about the art of taking a catch (Chappelli long ago once told a terrific tale of him and Shane Warne and a conversation on catching), to listen to a subtlety on a field position, to be made aware of what takes place in dressing rooms (does Dravid throw bats, is it true Laxman sleeps?), to be told of how the Australians chatter, when, what, to whom. Not broad-brush pomposity, but eager detail. Else there goes the kitchen sink, hurtling towards my TV. Like a tracer bullet, of course.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Strait Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns